Bullies in Children's Literature

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Literature, especially children's literature, is replete with bullies of all sorts and since most of us have dealt with a bully (maybe even in ourselves) in one way or another in real life, they make an interesting sort of sub-group of villains. Of course, villainy is a small step from bullies and you can move into a study of villains real and imaginary but, for now, let's restrict ourselves to bullies, per se.

If you're dealing with young kids, start with Barbara Bottner and Peggy Rathman's Bootsie Barker Bites (Putnam, 1992. ISBN 0-399-22125-5 Library Binding Paperback). She does bite and she kicks and is a deliciously mean bully. Our narrator is told by her mother that she must learn to get along with other children and she means Bootsie. There's a standard comeuppance at the end but the book makes a good start on the care and handling of bullies.

Slightly older kids may enjoy the picture book by Sam Swope with illustrations by Barry Root The Araboolies of Liberty Street (Random, 1995 ISBN 0-517-88542-5 Paperback). In this town, the houses are all neat, people are well behaved and there is safety. There is also fear, however, because of General Pinch and his wife who are ever watchful for any deviation from the norm. Bellowing "I'll call in the army!" at any misbehavior, no matter how slight, the General and his wife are able to keep everything under control and everyone under their thumbs. Then, the Araboolies move in next door to the Pinches. The Araboolies don't understand the language and they don't care! Their carefree existence, which violates all that the Pinches hold dear, is bound to bring about a confrontation and so it does. There's a didactic message here but it's so exuberantly and humorously presented that we absorb it and laugh at the Pinches in all of society.

It's time for the kids to bring in their favorite bully books. Almost every book for kids with a school setting has a bully in it. They seem to be part of the standard cast of characters. Many books about neighborhood and friendships have a bully in there somewhere.

If they still need priming, try Ezra Jack Keats' Goggles! (Puffin, 1998 ISBN 0-140-56440-3 Hardcover) in which Peter and his friend find a pair of goggles in amongst some discarded junk and must protect them from the neighborhood bullies.

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It's bullies in the dog kingdom in Barbara Shook Hazen's The New Dog with illustrations by R. W. Alley (Dial, 1997 ISBN 0-8037-1812-8 Hardcover). The new dog for Danny's dogwalkng group is the tiny, pampered pet, Tootsie. The older dogs bully and browbeat Tootsie and succeed in getting him in trouble. Again, there is turnabout and vindication.

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Kevin Henkes handles bullies in at least two of his picture books Weekend with Wendell (Morrow, 1986 ISBN 0-688-06326-8. Library Binding Hardcover Paperback) and Chester's Way (Greenwillow, 1988 ISBN 0-688-07608-4 Library Binding Hardcover Paperback) and the bullies are dealt with differently in these books. In Wendell Sophie tames him by asserting herself. In Chester Lilly frightens them away with her nifty disguise.

Start making a chart such as the one below:

|               |           |           |                    |            |
|               |           |           |                    |            |
| Weekend with  | Wendell   | Sophie    | Asserting herself  | They like  |
|  Wendell      |           |           |                    | each other |
|               |           |           |                    |            |
| Chester's Way | Big boys  | Chester & | Lilly scares them   | The bullies| 
|               |           | Wilson    | away               | run away   |


Of course you can make other columns such as one for the reasons why the bully bullies.

Flow charts work with any book -- picture or novel and help to highlight cause and effect as well as climax and resolution. One of the most effective ways to do them is by placing each of six or seven sentences summarizing the action of a book on movable blobs of paper on a bulletin board. Moving them around until they fit the proper sequence of events is, of course, an exercise in sequencing. Use arrows to show how one event leads to others and draw colorful starry points around the climax and you've got it. After you've done one together, get the kids to do the same with the bully book they're reading.

Keep adding books but start discussions about which of those ways of dealing with bullies have ever worked for your kids. Could they work? Is the resolution in their book believable? What else might they try? What would be the possible outcomes, good and bad?

Conduct interviews with parents and older friends about the bullies they have known or dealt with. Push a little harder and you can usually get people to admit that, at one time or another in their lives, they were bullies themselves.

We don't want to stay with picture books, of course, because there are wonderful novels with bullies in them. My favorite is Natalie Kinsey-Warnock's The Night the Bells Rang (Cobblehill, 1991 ISBN 0-525-65074-1 Hardcover) This is a gentle story of life in northern Vermont during the first World War. Mason lives on a farm with his younger brother and parents and much of the book describes such rural pastimes as sugar on snow and cider-making, but the heart of the book lies in the perceptions Mason has toward Aden Cutler, a school bully. It's Mason who bears the brunt of that bullying and often, bullies his own brother in anger at his helplessness. He frequently wishes Aden dead. However, it is also Mason who is sole witness to and recipient of an act of bravery and kindness on the part of Aden. When every bell in town rings out for the end of the war, it is Mason who approaches Aden's mother who stands alone grieving for Aden, killed in battle, knowing that no one in the celebrating town thought kindly of her son. "He did something for me once and I never thanked him. I wish he were coming back...I'm sorry." says Mason and runs off to take his turn ringing the bell for peace. The point of the story is clear but not hammered in. It's a lovely read-aloud for kids from about third grade up, I think.

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Grades 4 - 7
Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn. Novel. 224 pages.
Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

In 1944, while her brother is overseas fighting in World War II, eleven-year-old Margaret gets a new view on the school bully Gordy, when she finds him hiding his brother Stuart, an army deserter, and decides to help him. When Margaret's own brother is killed in the war, her feelings toward Stuart become more complicated. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

Paul Zindel usually writes for an older audience but in Attack of the Killer Fishsticks (Bantam, 1993 ISBN 0-553-48084-7 Paperback) he gets younger and sillier. Zindel sets four fifth graders on a quest to help Max, the new kid at school, deal with the Nasty Blobs, two school bullies. They even encourage him to run for fifth grade class representative in this very accessible chapter book.

Bad Girls by Cynthia Voigt (Scholastic, 1996 ISBN 0-590-60134-2 Hardcover) is fun. Mikey and Margalo meet in Mrs. Chemsky's fifth grade classroom. For a short time they are rivals but soon team up for disaster. They so effectively deal with the class bully, Louis Caselli, that his resulting rage gets him expelled from school. Mikey is aggressive and defiant. Margalo prefers a sneaky approach but together they make up a challenge for an equally resourceful teacher in this school novel. Like the characters in the book, this one's best for fifth grade and up.

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Carlos Is Gonna Get It by Kevin Emerson (Levine/Scholastic, 2008 ISBN 9780439935258) is told from the point of view of seventh grader, Trina and her friends who have had it with Carlos' acting out in class. He talks in a funny voice and itches incessantly. Now they've hatched a plan to teach him a lesson -- but Trina's having second thoughts. Paints a realistic picture of the bullying and interpersonal dramas of middle school. More information.

Bullies lead, as we said before, to villains and villains in history are many. It's a small step into reading and discussion about Hitler, Stalin, the Kaiser. Go from there to the wars many of them caused and we have bullies carried to the nth degree. Good luck.


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